In Academia as in Government, Personnel Is Policy

News is that Providence College, where I taught for 27 years, will be getting a new president in 2020. He won’t have troubles with money or buildings, whereas for re-establishing the Catholic faith as the school’s foundation, aim, and reason for existence, he will face, outside of the theology department, a nearly universal hostility from a faculty that has grown radically secular. This transformation occurred not, as with most Catholic colleges, in the 1970s and 1980s, but only in the last ten years, and most drastically in the last five.

All of which prompts two questions, relevant for all those who do not wish an originally Catholic school to be a vanilla version of the secular moonscape elsewhere—albeit one sprinkled with the occasional crucifix. How do you keep the collapse from happening? How do you climb out of the hole, once it has happened?

I will concentrate on two related measures regarding hiring—that is, making sure that you hire good people and that you do not hire bad people.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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For about ten years—roughly 1996-2005, if my memory serves—the college labored under a hiring policy that was onerous and expensive and that hardly anybody among the faculty liked. There was only one good thing to say about it. It worked.

Suppose your department wanted another professor, and suppose the administration granted you the go-ahead to conduct a search. The advertisement for my department, English, had to include a notice that the school was Catholic, and that the professor had to be able and willing to teach the college’s signature program: the Development of Western Civilization. At that time the program covered four semesters of five hours a week and was required of all freshmen and sophomores.

Immediately the filter would begin to work. People prone to going into anaphylactic shock at the prospect of breathing the same air as faithful Catholics would not bother to apply. People whose kidneys would shut down if they ingested the poison of Homer, Hesiod, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Plato, Aristotle, Scripture, Virgil, Ovid, Marcus Aurelius, or Augustine—a typical sample from the first semester—would also not bother to apply. These were very often the same people.

But we would still need to narrow the candidates down from 100-200 to 10-12 for the interviewing process. Here a second filter began to work. We knew that every candidate who wanted to come to campus had first to write a response to the college’s mission statement. If we felt that this was going to prove an exercise in pointlessness, the interviewers would be discouraged from extending the invitation to begin with. These responses were read by the president, the executive vice president, and sometimes the provost, and, if they did not measure up, the candidates would sometimes be given a chance to do a rewrite. Some of them would drop out at this point.

Then came the campus interviews. And here was a third filter, the beauty of which was that it worked from the very beginning. I will take my experience in the English department as an example. We sometimes brought five people to campus—rather a lot, for one job. Of those five, three had to prove acceptable to the department. That was never a sure thing. Often a candidate would flame out. Plenty of people are good on paper but are poor in the classroom. Plenty of people seem to have credentials, but when you listen to their scholarly presentations, you see that they don’t know the subject or don’t think very well. We’d never want to settle for such. So if we could not come up with three who were acceptable, the search would be declared a failure.

Why three? The president wanted a choice. When a department sends one candidate for approval, the president is up against the wall. He can either agree or not agree, and that is that. Very rarely will he disagree. But when you send three, and you know that the president will choose the one he thinks is best, you have a strong incentive to work with and not against his expectations. Let me explain. Suppose you send the president a slate of three, and one of the three is a student of so-called “queer theory,” or a radical feminist who has worked at Planned Parenthood, or clearly opposed to your conception of what a liberal education in the West should be. The president is not going to choose this one. There is no chance of it. So why bother to submit that name at all? All you accomplish thereby is to narrow your choices from three to two. And this increases the chance that you will get nobody you like.

But if you know that the president will be making a choice, and you do not want to waste your time, you will be likely not to penalize people of faith—and this, in our time, is an enormous concession.

For those nine years, we hired Catholics, or people not hostile to Catholics, in departments that had been barren of Catholics before, and these people began to leaven the school. Most were not politically conservative. However, people of faith, of whatever political persuasion, are those who you can at least talk to. And sometimes the candidates were themselves people of faith.

Then the new president came, and the faculty cried out like Israel in Goshen, and he set them free to do as they pleased. There was still a nominal attempt to hire people friendly to the faith, but this is unlikely to happen when almost all the authority for hiring belongs to the departments. And then came calls for “diversity”—that is, “uniformity,” a secular uniformity as regards faith, morals, and what we believe about the heritage of the West.

This might puzzle people who do not work in academe, but I assure you that the Venn diagrams covering “professors with a deep faith in God” and “professors who believe that Shakespeare has a hundred times as much to teach us about the world than we moderns have to teach him, and therefore we should humbly read him on his own terms,” are almost coterminous.

I have discussed how not to hire bad people, and how to increase your chance of getting someone sane in a national search. But there is more to say about this.

Catholics, serious Christians, and devotees of the Western heritage have to fight every inch of the way through graduate school, often playing along and keeping their heads low and their mouths shut, lest they be ruined by the vitriol of the professoriate. I do not have the liberty here to tell stories about other people and what they have suffered from the touchiness and treachery of ideologues of tolerance.

This means that there are truly brave people out there who do not float down the stream of mass phenomena. These people above all ought to be sought out by Catholic and other Christian colleges. In their case we are not talking about a series of filters; We are talking about throwing out lifelines. Some professors would object, but consider: you would get an intelligent and personable teacher without having needed to plow through a few hundred applications or the weariness of presentations, classroom trials, meetings and voting.

If you want your school to remain Catholic, you need to hire Catholics and people who do not hate what the Church teaches. Once they arrive and prove that they are solid teachers and scholars, you must choose from among them for positions in the administration. There is no other way to do it. Even what I have suggested is at best a compromise with the way of the world. This is the minimum.

I do not wish the new president all the luck in the world. I wish him all the guts in the world: the courage to be opposed, slandered, and hated. The alternative, however, is to be barely liked, slandered, and despised. It is better to be hated for being faithful than to be despised for being weak.


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